She turned her head toward Neji's voice, her cheek cushioned by the grass. Her teammate was perched on a branch close by, the same branch he had taken to an hour ago when his watch had begun, low enough to be easily heard, but just high enough that the waxing moon darkened him into a silhouette.
"You should sleep," he said when their eyes met. "There's still an hour before your watch."
"I know," she murmured back, careful not to wake their clients from their travel-weary slumber, and turned her head again to look at the sky. "It's okay, I'm not tired." Vaguely she wondered how long he had been observing her.
A good portion of the past hour had found her on her back with one knee bent, her hands lifted just over her chest, her eyes turned upward. Now and then the moonlight would flash against one of the wires she'd used to connect ten kunai to ten fingers, or a spark of amber chakra would flare briefly on its path toward the blades as she conducted their silent dances in the air. She was close to achieving a perfect reflection of that which Sasuke had used to free his trapped kunai the day before.
She was getting better at it. Using chakra to maneuver the weapons had come surprisingly naturally to her. It worked well with her sharp eye as she moved the ten blades into increasingly complex designs, using only the smallest movements of her fingers, like a puppeteer. When a slight pressure settled over her - the telltale sign that she was being observed with Neji's Byakugan, even if he was giving more attention to his watch - Tenten cleverly formed nine of the kunai into an angular target, then sent the tenth flying through the center. He rolled his eyes, and she smiled.
"You haven't used that method before," he said, keeping his eyes toward their clients, though the Byakugan's pressure remained on her.
Tenten shook her head in agreement, rather proud of herself. "I just got the idea yesterday." Yesterday, with Sasuke, just before he--
Her skin prickling, Tenten quickly forced the thought down. "It's working better than I thought it would," she went on, more than anything to keep her mind off the subject of those last five minutes with him. A curl of weariness tugged at her, and she answered by floating the ten kunai back to her side, slipping her fingers out of the wires and absently tracing her lips. "I don't know why I never thought of it before--"
"You're not in the way."
Tenten's mouth clamped shut, and she swung a confused frown in Neji's direction. "What?"
Neji still didn't look at her directly. He was glowering at something she couldn't see. "You have never been in the way," he said, this time more quietly. "You're being foolish if you think you have."
"Um…" Tenten quickly went back over their short conversation in her mind, looking for anything she could have said to bring this on, but found herself at a loss, "…okay." When he said no more, curiosity got the best of her, confusion overtaking the warmth that normally would have spread through her at such an acknowledgement. "Where did that come from?"
At length, Neji shook his head. "He said you may be thinking that way."
Brief pause. "Uchiha Sasuke."
Tenten's expression went slack with surprise. Since when did Neji talk to Sasuke about her? She had never even seen the two of them voluntarily go within ten feet of each other, except--
Except yesterday, when she had found them in the clearing, and Neji had been so quick to make his exit.
"…You did say something to him," she murmured finally. Neji was silent. Tenten pushed herself into a sitting position and turned to look at him in earnest. "What did you say to him, Neji?"
He still didn't face her. "He shouldn't give you a reason to cover for him."
For the first time since she could remember, at least when just the two of them were involved, Tenten felt a spark of irritation heat her blood. "Look, we're…he's just dealing with some things right now, and he doesn't have a lot of control over them, and…and it's just nothing, okay? Everything's fine."
"Fine," he echoed quietly, then finally turned to meet her eyes. "Then explain to me what changed." She met him with a blank expression, and he continued, "Ever since that day in the clearing, you've been acting different."
Tenten bristled in spite of herself. "No, I haven't." Had she?
"You have." She could make out little more than his outline and the reflection of his eyes, which only added to the feeling that they were talking from a distance that was starting to grow. "You've shown up late more often this month than in the past year. You've overworked yourself to the point of injury. You lie about bruises that normal training would never give you. And you've been doing that," - realizing that she was touching her lips again, she quickly pulled her hand away, irritated with herself - "since we left the village." Tenten fastened her eyes to the ground.
"That isn't a habit of yours," Neji went on, scrutinizing her just like he had when he'd asked about the bruises on her neck, "so the only explanation is that something must have--"
He stopped at almost the same moment, realization flashing through his expression as his Byakugan-enhanced insight told him exactly what he needed to know. Then he slowly broke the gaze, looking wounded for only a second before his face turned to stone, and he turned back to his watch. "I see."
He didn't respond, and Tenten realized that she didn't have anything to say.
Chapter 8: Entombed
By the time they stepped through Konoha's gates, Tenten had convinced herself that Neji was never going to speak to her again.
It was an irrational thought, she knew - no doubt a product of a long journey and a sleepless night - but she couldn't get past it. The rest of the return journey that morning had been so abnormally silent that more than one of their clients had asked if they were trying to escape someone's notice. Each time, she had put on a good face and assured them that they were well within the Fire Country's borders, safe from any harm. Neji had kept his eyes forward and said nothing.
The strange part was that he didn't seem angry at her. Not that he had a reason to be, she reminded herself, but unreasonable anger she could deal with. Instead, he was just acting…cold, like the day they had first become teammates. Like they were strangers. The feeling had tugged at her with every step, and deep in the back of her mind, she just couldn't shake the idea that she had betrayed him somehow.
As soon as they had directed their clients to the foreman's office, Tenten dared a glance at her teammate, only to find that he'd turned to leave already. Her heart sank; no, he was definitely never speaking to her agai--
"I'll fill out the mission report, " he said quietly. Tenten came to attention, blinked at him, then finally came to herself and nodded. Satisfied, he moved to take to the rooftops.
"--Neji?" Tenten blurted, a strange panic gripping her stomach, and he stopped again without turning around. She took a breath, then paused, biting her lip, not sure exactly what she was trying to accomplish.
Finally she let the breath out, gripping her elbows. "…I'll…see you for training tomorrow, right?"
He didn't answer right away, and she could almost see the tension that crept into his shoulders. "Of course."
Tenten immediately felt something unwind in her, though the stiff, flat timbre of his voice kept her uncertain. She looked at the ground. "Okay."
Neji lingered there a moment, as if he planned on saying more, but then he seemed to decide against it. In moments he had vanished in the direction of the Hokage's mansion. As soon as he was out of sight, Tenten sighed and pushed her bangs out of her eyes, frustrated. She didn't know what she had expected from him.
Finally she too turned away from the spot and started toward the hospital at a pensive walk. A talk with Lee usually got her in a good mood, and if not, at least managed to distract her for a while. Besides, he would want to hear about the mission, however uneventful it was.
That, she added in the back of her mind, and if she went straight there, she was less likely to run into Sasuke.
That thought alone brought back all of the ridiculous worries that had whirled through her mind all night, chasing sleep away even when she wasn't on watch: Would this change things between her and Sasuke? With her teammates? What was she supposed to say when she saw him? Did this mean he was in love with her? Was she supposed to be in love with him now?
Her steps slowed as she neared the hospital, and her brows furrowed.
She didn't think so. She didn't know, but she didn't think so.
Well. She didn't have to think about it now, she decided, her pace growing resolute again. Lee would be able to tell if she was worried, and the last thing she wanted was to upset him. I'll see Sasuke later, she reminded herself. Then I'll just deal with whatever happens. That's what I'm good at, right?
Cheered a little by the thought, Tenten strode through the hospital doors, sending her usual greeting to the receptionist and automatically heading toward Lee's room. On the way, she found herself having to dodge and sidestep medic-nins and nurses much more often than usual. At once her blood chilled. Could something have happened while she was gone? Lee…
Her steps quickened of their own accord, carrying her with a purposeful stride in the direction of Lee's hallway. The path had ingrained itself in her memory: just past this hall, then around the corner--
Tenten stumbled backward, then darted an arm forward in time to catch the arm of the person she'd run into before they could hit the ground. "Sorry, I wasn't looking…" she began automatically, then blinked when she recognized who it was. "Sakura?"
The surprise in Sakura's eyes shifted into recognition. "Tenten…"
Relaxing, Tenten let go of the younger girl's arm and offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry about that. Here," she said, bending to pick up a few things Sakura had dropped, among them a thick textbook and what looked like some strips of cloth. "What are you doing here?" she asked, piling Sakura's things neatly before straightening. "If you're here for Lee, I promise you'll make his day."
But Sakura was shaking her head. Looking more closely, Tenten found that the poor girl looked like she hadn't slept in days. Nodding her thanks for the help, Sakura took the pile back.
"I'm here for Sasuke-kun."
Something in Tenten slowed to a stop. "…Sasuke?"
Sakura nodded. For the first time Tenten noticed that she had seen the bits of cloth in her arms before: they were shreds of the arm bands that Sasuke always wore. There must have been a noticeable change in her expression, because Sakura glanced from her face to the strips and back. "His wrist is broken," she explained at length, swallowing. "They had to cut these off. I'm just getting them out of the way. I…wanted to do something to help."
Tenten's mind felt frozen to numbness. "But…I just saw him the other day, when…" Shaking her head, she swung her gaze back to meet Sakura's. "What happened to him?"
Sakura regarded her in silence for a few moments before shifting the pile higher in her arms and turning back the way she came. "Come with me. I don't know everything about it, but…"
Nodding, Tenten fell into step with her.
Sakura hadn't lied about not knowing much, but even so, Tenten's eyes had widened with shock at what fragments she did have to tell, full of words both familiar and foreign: Uchiha Itachi. Naruto. Akatsuki. A challenge. A failure.
A jutsu that attacked the mind.
When they reached the room Tenten assumed to be Sasuke's, Sakura hovered at the door, as if both eager and reluctant to enter. "Look, Tenten…I don't really know how close you are with Sasuke-kun, but you should know, he's…different right now." Her lowering eyes said she had experienced the difference firsthand. "He won't respond to anything, except when anyone tries to touch him. Then he…I've never seen Sasuke-kun like that." Tears welled in green eyes, but were quickly swallowed down. "They're letting him have visitors. But he's really different."
Tenten nodded, feeling a pang of sympathy as Sakura's description conjured an image of the way Lee had been not so long ago, curled up and hopeless. She had felt helpless then. She knew how hard it could be. "Thanks, Sakura." She moved to open the door, but paused. "You know, Lee would really love it if you went to see him. He'll have gotten his meds about half an hour ago, so he won't be bouncing off the walls or anything…it could give you something else to think about," she tried, unsure what else she could do for her.
Sakura managed a tired smile. "Maybe I will."
With a last nod to her, Tenten took a deep breath, then slid the door open.
For a moment, her eyes tried to tell her the room was empty. It took a closer look for them to register that the pale, motionless figure in the bed was a living, breathing person. Her heart clenching, Tenten moved toward the bedside chair in silence, then sat down on the end, her knees hardly an inch from the side of the mattress. "Sasuke…" she heard herself murmur.
He looked like the corpse of a stranger. The pallor in his face only served to emphasize the dark bruises that spread across his jaw and the back of his neck. She could just make out the bulk of bandages that seemed to be wound around his torso under his shirt, and there was almost no distinction between the white of the cast on his arm and the white fingers protruding from it.
What frightened her the most, though, were his eyes. They were half-lidded and empty, blind, like painted glass.
Tenten grasped her knees, unsure what she meant to do.
"So you're not talking to anyone, huh?" she finally asked, her voice a half-whisper that mingled tentatively with the overpowering silence. Sasuke didn't move, and Tenten lowered her eyes. "I guess not."
Sighing to herself, Tenten looked him over more closely, feeling something heavy and aching rise in her chest at the sight of the curse seal at his neck, black and dormant against his skin. Without her willing it to, her hand drifted forward to cover it up with the collar of his shirt; somehow, the thought of letting the world see his burden when he was like this brought a sour taste to her mouth. He lay deathly still as she gently tugged on the fabric. When she was satisfied, she let go, and the backs of her fingers just barely brushed against his skin--
At once his entire body jerked as though she'd burned him, startling her with the shock of movement. Cold, almost animalistic fear flashed in his eyes, and he threw his arms around himself, turning away from her to curl up on his side. Tenten quickly brought her hand back, her eyes widening. "Okay. Okay."
At length she sat back in her chair, only able to watch helplessly as he bowed his head, shrinking himself even more, as if he was trying to disappear. The sound of his breathing, now quickened and labored and watery, made something wrench in her. It sounded painful.
"What did he do to you?" she found herself asking softly, asking no one.
The reply was achingly silent.
He was lost.
Black and red painted his sight. (Black hair, red eyes.)
He wished he were alone. (Red clouds, black sky.)
His lungs were trapped in vises that occasionally tightened to scare him. Someone said his ribs were broken. He didn't believe them. (Black fire, red walls.)
He wished he were no one. (Red steel, black silhouette.)
Someone told him to wake up darkness - too dark, why? Too dark, too quiet, why? Black fear becomes red panic, should run - Father and Mother, protection. Where?
He wished they would stop saying his name. He didn't want to be the one with that name anymore.
They spoke in low voices screams and dying breaths and tried to use soothing words BETRAYED and looked into his eyes again and again, like they were waiting for him to look back never, won't, can't, red moons under black mangekyou, can't again, never again.
He wished they wouldn't touch him. He didn't want to be reminded that he was there.
"We can't prep him for surgery if he won't let us touch him. He'll just hurt himself if we try again."
"All right, I'll put him under. You two, hold him."
They were trying to fix him. Fading to a black world. Silent. Alone. Let me stay here. They didn't know how. Ripped away, back again, no, not again. Red pain in his arm, his chest, the vises tightening, don't touch me please don't touch me please Niisan don't kill me - running, running away "Run and run, and cling desperately to life…" - but no, not again, never again.
The sinking sun shone red into unseeing eyes before giving way to black night.
"A new Hokage?"
Lee nodded, watching with fascination as Tenten showed him her newly-inspired technique, only moving now and then to catch a drip of ice cream with his tongue. "That's what the nurses are saying."
"Hm…I guess it is about time." Tenten's eyes automatically found the Hokage Monument. "It's strange to think of another face up there."
"The rumor is…" Lee began, but he paused, and she turned to cast a curious glance at him. He had carefully moved into a sitting position on the deck with his eyes lowered. When her gaze fell on him, she saw his grip tighten.
"…The rumor is that the new Hokage is a master healer."
Tenten's breath stopped for a moment. "A healer?" she asked tentatively, hope springing to life in her. He looked up and nodded again, wide eyes reflecting the hope, though neither of them dared say it out loud.
Finally turning back to the wires, Tenten sent her twenty kunai soaring through the air with renewed vigor. "I wonder who it is," she murmured.
Lee was quiet for a while after that, as he had been all week. Boundless as his energy could be, the hospital had a sobering effect on him, even when his spirits were high. When she glanced at him, though, she couldn't help but smile at the way his eyes brightened at the twenty-kunai lotus flower she'd formed for him in the sky.
"That's the perfect technique for you, Tenten!" he cheered, quickly finishing off the cone. "I thought you hated chakra control!"
Tenten briefly looked at the sky in amusement, flashing on Neji making a similar comment. "I think I'm starting to make peace with it." Lee praised her with a thumbs-up, and she giggled. "It's tiring, though," she added, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead. "I can't do any more than twenty yet."
"I'm sure you'll improve!" Lee said in a voice brimming with confidence. "You have more skill with weapons than anyone - maybe someday you'll even be able to use it with your Soushoryuu technique," he added, his eyes widening.
"You think so?" Tenten's eyebrows lifted as she played with the thought.
Lee nodded, flashing her a smile. "I have no doubt!"
Tenten felt herself beaming at her teammate, strangely tempted to drop everything and hug him for his unwavering faith. More than ever, she prayed that the future Hokage would be able to give him back what she couldn't.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, oblivious to her sentiments. "What does Neji think of the technique? I bet even he's impressed!"
He didn't seem to notice her smile fading until only a hint of it remained. "Neji…well…I haven't exactly used it on him yet."
"Really?" Lee asked, his eyebrows raising in astonishment. "Why not?"
Because we've barely talked all week. "Oh…no reason." She plastered on another smile for him. "I want to make sure I've got it right before trying it in a battle. You know?"
Lee's mouth formed an 'o' of understanding, and Tenten returned her attention to the flashing blades, collapsing the flower into the twenty kunai again and letting them take their own paths. She had been wrong about Neji never speaking to her again, but not quite as wrong as she would have liked. All week, their spars had been quick and to the point, holding none of the playful baiting she was used to. He would defeat her, like he always did, and then he would leave, and she would go home feeling strangely unfulfilled, the sensation only fading after she'd trained another three hours by herself.
He still wasn't acting angry. Just quiet, not unlike he had been just after his battle against Hinata. Though she had a sinking feeling that it had to do with her, she had dared to ask him what was wrong a few times, but each time, she would only receive a stiff, 'Nothing,' in answer. She hadn't felt so shut off from him since their days in the Academy, and she was surprised at just how lonely it was.
"Ah…Tenten…" Blinking back to the present, Tenten turned to face an uncertain Lee. "Is something bothering you?"
She frowned. "Why do you…" But she trailed off, following his gaze across the hospital's training field to where her twenty kunai had practically reduced the training post to splinters. "…ask…"
Wisely choosing not to mention the post, Lee grasped his good ankle, looking for all the world like a schoolboy trying to decide whether to correct a teacher. "Well…since you got back, you have been spending a lot more time here. Not to mention the training."
Lee nodded, wide-eyed. "When something is bothering you, you train much more vigorously! Like on that mission to the border, when you threw shuriken at that tree trunk until Neji made you stop so you wouldn't pass out, and Gai-sensei said you were just moody because it was a special time of the mo--"
"Okay, I get it," Tenten interrupted, flushing uncontrollably and deciding she really, really didn't want to know. Come to think of it, as soon as she had been back on her feet after the fight with Temari, she had trained at every given chance, earning her several disapproving looks from the nurses and several new aches and pains to ignore when she trained with Neji.
"But that's not it this time," she assured him at length. "Don't worry about it, Lee, it's probably just stress. I've been busy lately." And one of my training partners is mad at me, and the other one still won't speak. Slipping her fingers from the wires, she crossed to him in a step and a half and playfully ruffled his hair. "Okay?"
"I guess…" Lee hesitantly agreed, squinting one eye shut and straightening out his hair with his good hand. Tenten sent him a reassuring smile, then turned to collect her kunai and gauge whether an apology to the groundskeeper was in order for the training post she'd all but destroyed.
But before she could take a step, she was cut off by a loud pop and a burst of smoke and leaves just inches away that made her jump back with an embarrassingly girlish squeak, arms shooting up to block an attack.
Her rapid pulse calmed, though, when Lee let out a joyful sound behind her and scrambled for his crutch, then shot to his feet. "Sensei!"
"Hello, my exuberant students!"
Sure enough, the smoke cleared to reveal a familiar shock of green and a pose that made her seriously consider taking a bottle of bleach to her eyes. Tenten shot him a scowl, clutching her chest from the scare. "You could have just come through the gate," she muttered.
"And dampen the youthful surprise in my students' faces? Never!" Gai-sensei declared, planting his hands on his hips and shooting her a grin that nearly blinded her on its own. Tenten sighed. Lee alone she could deal with, but both of them, without Neji to back her up…
Gai-sensei seemed oblivious to her despair; in fact, he looked positively giddy. "Ah, but enough of that - I've come to share the news of a momentous event!"
"What is it, Gai-sensei?" Lee cried, right on cue, while Tenten only held her elbows and looked up with interest.
If possible, Gai-sensei's grin grew even wider with the pride of one who knows a secret. "The village has just received word that Naruto-kun and Jiraiya-sama have had success in locating a new Hokage. They have begun their return journey just this morning!"
As one, Tenten and Lee caught and held their breath. "And?" Tenten asked, her heart pounding against her ribs. "Who is it?"
Gai-sensei sent her a strangely pleased expression. "Why, you should know better than anyone," he said, and her face went blank. "The new Hokage is none other than the legendary ninja and master healer, Tsunade!"
Tenten's eyes went so wide that they immediately started to water, and her hands slowly dropped to her sides. "Tsu…the Tsunade?" she breathed, and Gai-sensei gave a triumphant nod. "The Tsunade is coming here?…To be Hokage?" she pressed, her voice rising in pitch with every word, and he confirmed it once again with a thumbs-up. It was all she could do to hold back a squeal that would put Sakura and Ino to shame. She clamped her mouth shut to keep it back, though otherwise she was positively glowing.
It was only after a few moments had passed that Tenten realized Lee hadn't yet said a word in response. At once it hit her. "That means…"
Lee's eyes were fixed on their sensei, as if unwilling to hope until he heard it in so many words. Looking to Gai-sensei herself, Tenten suddenly got the sense that he had more to say, but that it wasn't for all ears present.
Normally disappointment would have tugged at her, but not this time, because Tsunade was coming. Tsunade, her idol since childhood, was coming, and she was going to make everything right. "Oh - I'll get out of the way," she said finally, catching all of her kunai by the wires and pocketing them in one swift motion. "I have to tell Neji! Does he know? Never mind, I'll tell him anyway - Lee, I'll see you tomorrow?"
Both he and Gai-sensei seemed openly entertained by her excitement, and Lee exchanged the same hopeful expression with her as before, then nodded. With a hasty half-bow to her sensei, Tenten then turned and leapt to the rooftops, practically dancing across them with adrenaline. It didn't matter that things had felt rocky with Neji all week. He couldn't know about this yet, and he was well aware of how important Tsunade was to her.
Finally she found him in a remote section of the training grounds, Byakugan activated. "Neji!" she called, skidding to a stop a few yards behind him and panting from a combination of exertion and excitement. He paused, but didn't turn. "Did you hear?" she asked, energy pumping through her in anticipation of his reaction. "The Tsunade is going to be the Fifth Hokage!"
Hardly two seconds passed, and he spoke only two words, so icily that she instantly sobered:
Tenten blinked, her exhiliration fading. "Well - this is good, Neji," she tried again. "She's an expert medical ninja. She might be able to make it so Lee can fight again."
"Good," was his only reply.
Tenten's eyebrows furrowed, but she held her tongue, looking him over. It looked like he'd been here a while, the trees chakra-scorched and his clothes stained with dirt and sweat. Maybe he was just tired. "Well…I just thought you'd want to know," she said finally, drawing back a bit.
He at least moved this time, turning to collect what was his, though he still didn't look at her. "Thank you."
Biting her lip, Tenten slowly drew back. "I'll…see you tomorrow, I guess." He nodded mutely, and she lowered her eyes, then slowly turned towards home. Once she reached the other side of the training grounds, though, the wealth of targets caught her eye. She then proceeded to summon every weapon in her stores and hurl them into bull's-eyes until her arms went numb.
Two weeks passed. Then he spoke again.
Sakura cried. Almost. He only saw the tears well in her eyes - the first time he'd looked into them since it had happened - before she whispered his name and threw her arms around his neck. His body jerked with the instinct to pull away, but his mind was clearing. He bit the impulse down.
His arm didn't hurt anymore. The cast was gone. Sasuke's mind took careful note of those facts, and for a moment he was eight years old again, awakening to white walls and wondering if it had all just been a nightmare.
But the moment passed. He was thirteen, and he had let Itachi do it again.
The swinging of the door interrupted the black weight that had begun to creep through his veins, and a medical ninja strode in. He remembered half-seeing her in ethereal frames of red and black, hearing echoes of her voice giving instructions and asking him questions he couldn't make himself answer. She was always asking questions. Today was no different. "Feeling a little better today, Uchiha-kun?"
Sakura let go of him and obediently left to wait outside the room. He held the doctor's gaze for a moment, but said nothing. She looked pleased nonetheless, and lifted her clipboard to make a note, murmuring, "Prolonged eye-contact, very good…"
She didn't stay long, and he said little. He tensed when she gently prodded his healing wrist and checked his ribs, where dark bruises were still visible, but he forced himself to hold still. She wasn't Itachi. It was a distinction he apparently hadn't been able to make until very recently; he hadn't realized they'd had to hold him down and sedate him for every procedure that required them to touch him. Until the last couple of days, every face had been his brother's, every touch an impending blow.
After the doctor left, Sakura returned to happily update him on the happenings in the village, though he didn't ask for it. He did listen, though. He learned that Naruto and the old man had left again, then returned with a new Hokage. He learned that only one genin had been promoted to Chuunin rank, and that it was not himself. And he learned that the construction on the village would soon be coming to a close.
It felt strange, knowing that life was still happening without him.
Except for Sakura. As she bounced from one topic to another, green eyes sparkling, he noted that those same eyes were underlined with dark circles. The small act of moving to the edge of her chair held a stiffness he hadn't seen before. How much time had she spent sitting there, waiting for him?
Normally it would have made him angry, because he was Uchiha Sasuke and he didn't like people worrying about him. Normally he would have interrupted, told her to leave him alone and go back to her training or whatever it was she did, because normally he wouldn't want her to be held back by any sense of duty to him.
But he said nothing, because the anger never came.
He didn't feel anything at all.
Tenten lay sprawled on her back in the middle of the training field, weary eyes fixed on the gathering clouds while the cooling wind bit at her skin, when Neji found her. His shadow slipped over her first, followed by his footsteps coming to a pause next to an unfurled scroll.
"What are you doing?" Stiff, flat, formal. Two weeks now, and it hadn't changed.
Glancing at the sun, Tenten found that the morning had passed quickly, and it was their training time already. She didn't know where the time was going lately. "Warming up," she replied, her voice straining as she sat up, then shifted to a kneeling position to deactivate her weapon summons. "Just taking a break."
Neji frowned at her. "How long have you been here?"
"A while." Since I woke up. She straightened and stretched while white eyes followed her movements, slowly narrowing.
"How long, Tenten?"
She paused, glancing back at him. Even the way he stood was unbending, with feet planted and arms crossed, his expression carefully inscrutable. When he looked at her like that, it was hard not to mirror the coldness he gave off. "I don't know. I haven't exactly been counting," she said, frowning a little, then moved into her starting stance.
"Ready when you are."
"What?" Surprise flashed across his face at the bite in her voice, and something tugged in her chest. She tried to ignore it. "What?" she asked again.
It had been a long time since his eyes had been so impossible for her to read. "I didn't come to fight."
All of the anticipatory energy that had been building up in Tenten's body abruptly rushed out of her, and she went very still for a moment before slowly straightening. "…What?" she asked for a third time.
Neji's gaze held steady. "How many hours have you trained this week?"
"Why do you keep asking about that?"
"Because you aren't thinking about it." A note of accusation crept into his voice. "Ever since the mission, you've been going too far."
"No, I haven't." A tendril of anger, paired with an inexplicable murmur of panic, started to rise in her. "Sasuke's still in the hospital, so I can't train with him on the side anymore. I don't want to lose any momentum--"
"You passed out during the last spar."
"I didn't pass out!" Tenten argued, her voice rising with his. "I just got dizzy, and it was because I forgot to eat breakfast that morning--"
"That has nothing to do with it," Neji retorted, his frown deepening. "What you eat doesn't affect your chakra. It was approaching zero." Tenten opened her mouth to argue, but he went on without waiting, white eyes narrowing. "You're letting Uchiha Sasuke affect your judgment--"
"Sasuke?" she interrupted, taken aback. "You think I'm training too hard because of Sasuke?"
"It is because of him."
"No, it isn't--"
"You weren't overdoing it until he was attacked, and you just said yourself that you're trying to compensate for him."
"But that doesn't mean--"
"It does. Everything you've been doing has been directly related to--"
"It isn't just him, Neji!" The tendril of anger had moved into her chest and started pumping through her blood. Her fists clenched, shooting pain through overworked muscles. "I hate what happened to him, I hate it, but it isn't just that! It's Lee, too, and…" And you. "…and this surgery, it could kill him, and if that happened…that can't happen, and the next Chuunin Exams are getting closer every day, and now you don't even want me as a training partner anymore, and you think it's all because of Sasuke? He kisses me once, and I'm not allowed to care about anything else, is that it?"
Neji visibly stiffened at her bold confirmation of what she was sure he already knew. His arms uncrossed and lowered to his sides. "I don't care what you do," he said, ice darkening his words. "I've said what I came to say."
He turned to leave, and something in Tenten cried out. This wasn't supposed to happen, this was never supposed to happen, not now…
But pride held her limbs and tonge still, and then he'd vanished into the trees, leaving her alone in the middle of the training grounds, feeling like a part of her had vanished with him.
"Come with us. Then, Orochimaru will give you tremendous power."
That's what they had said. And he believed them. Somehow, it felt like he would have been able to tell if they were lying.
"Even if you do succeed in getting revenge, the only thing that remains is emptiness."
When Kakashi-sensei's words mixed with the words of Orochimaru's men, suddenly nothing was simple. Only three days ago had his mind become his own again; he needed things to be simple. Anger was simple. Blame was simple.
Revenge was simple.
Sasuke's fists buried themselves deeper in his pockets, and he chose to focus only on the sound of his footsteps against the road, the chill of the night wind against his face.
"You must decide."
He didn't want to decide.
His mind was in too much of a whirlwind for him to notice anything that lay in his path - until he rounded a corner and came face-to-face with someone he had almost forgotten. Both of them came to an abrupt halt, narrowly avoiding a collision, and her face opened with shock.
"You're up…" she murmured at length, wide brown eyes searching his for something he couldn't place. Sasuke only kept her gaze for a moment before looking away, saying nothing. After a second, she went on. "I didn't know they were letting you go already - I mean, I'm glad," she backpedaled. "You had everyone worried for a while."
Her voice was cautious, almost nervous. He didn't remember her sounding like that before. She was acting like she didn't know where she stood with him.
(Close enough that he could see his reflection in her eyes. "Good luck on the mission.")
That's right. The last thing he had done was kiss her.
He said nothing. The memory of the thrill, the panic that had shot through him that day, felt far away, like it had happened to someone else. Now, somehow, such things didn't feel important anymore.
"Um…" She shifted on her feet; he was making her uncomfortable. Once he might have felt something about that. "Are you…I mean…"
"Am I okay?" he asked softly, the growl in his own voice surprising him. He didn't like the sound, low and almost hoarse, much more accusatory than he had intended. Slowly he lifted his eyes, forcing himself to look at her. She didn't look stung, but that feeling of guilt was emanating from her again. He didn't like that either.
"You're right," she mumbled, looking at the ground. "That was a stupid question. Sorry."
Silence again. He didn't like her being so careful, like the wrong word could shatter him again, just like everyone else had been. Until now, she had been different from other people. She wasn't supposed to change.
Or maybe he was the one who had changed.
Swallowing hard, he averted his eyes again and, with a nod that hardly existed, he made to continue past her. He needed to be alone, away from the hospital with overbearing doctors and frightened nurses, away from his teammates with their challenges and pleas, away from Kakashi-sensei who knew him better than anyone should be able to know him--
"Sasuke--wait." She reached out and caught his wrist, but the moment she did, a flash of his brother's crushing grip made him jerk away so violently that she gasped, taking a step back.
They stood in stunned silence for a moment before both of their gazes lowered. He could feel the guilt in her again, but this time some of it was mirrored in himself. He hadn't meant to do that.
"Sorry," she murmured again. "Just…if you needed to talk - or wanted to, I mean…you can." She seemed to lose faith in her words even as she said them. "That's all. Sorry."
He nodded again without looking at her, and she started moving past him, presumably toward her apartment. His chest tightened; he was starting to hate her apologies.
But Hyuuga hadn't lied about her being the kind of person who forgave. Somehow, Sasuke knew that she would forgive him again if she knew how he'd almost destroyed both of his teammates today. She would forgive him even if it had been her instead of them. She already had once.
And if she could forgive…
Maybe she could understand.
He was turning back before he could stop himself. "Tenten?"
She paused. Dark eyes found him again, hopeful as always, haunting as always. "Yeah?"
For one second, he thought he could do it. He could tell her everything, just let it spill out of him with the force of a dam breaking, let her see the mess that was left of him, ask for her help, trust her…
But then the second had passed. His mind returned to him, and his voice fled.
"Just forget about those useless bonds."
No. He couldn't tell her. This was his burden.
At length, his eyes once again turned to the ground. He shook his head.
She didn't move for a long moment, but he refused himself the comfort of meeting her gaze again. He could still feel her eyes on him as she turned toward home. "…Look…take care of yourself, okay?" It was only after he'd quietly nodded that she made any move to leave. And after she was gone, he realized that by keeping his silence, he had made the answer very clear. A strange calm settling over him, he picked up his pace once more. It was decided.
By sunrise, he would be gone.
She couldn't sleep. Not with Sasuke's expression imprinted on her mind and the lingering echo of her name on his lips. For a moment, he had wanted to tell her something, and every fiber of her wished that he had. The way he'd looked at her had sent chills through her.
She had never seen him look so lost.
He stood alone in his bedroom, moonlight spilling through the window and illuminating flecks of dust that had accumulated during his hospital stay. There was no doubt in his mind that he would not be sleeping here tonight, but for some reason, he had been drawn to the one photo in that room, the one taken with his team just after their first mission.
"Take care of yourself, okay?"
"Don't forget your goal."
In the photo, he looked at ease. Relaxed, almost smiling - like he belonged there. He couldn't remember what it felt like to be that person.
"We've found good friends, haven't we?"
"Just forget about those useless bonds."
Swallowing hard, Sasuke reached out a hand to rest his fingers on the corner of the frame, taking a long look at the boy who was almost happy. Forget. At the people who he had come to accept as necessary parts of his life. Forget.
And finally, with a wrench deep in his core, he understood.
The boy in that photo didn't exist anymore.
His lungs pulled in air, then released it, almost shaking. And silently, he tightened his grip on the frame and lowered it until it lay facedown. He doesn't exist. The words whispered in his mind like a mantra, giving him strength. With every repetition, the thought of walking out the door felt a little less impossible.
Stepping back, Sasuke shifted his pack higher on his shoulders, then took a final scan of the room. It may be the last time he would see it for a long time.
As he did so, a glimmer caught his eye, making him pause. It had come from just behind the fallen picture frame.
Moving back toward the bedside table, Sasuke reached out and picked up the object. He froze.
The Uchiha kunai. He hadn't touched it since the day Tenten had offered it to him. The moonlight caught every groove in the metal, just illuminating his clan symbol on the handle. A knot rose in his throat.
"Just forget about those useless bonds."
Suddenly feeling short of breath, he stubbornly swallowed the knot down. He wouldn't need any distractions.
A last look, and Sasuke turned away, kunai in hand. He looked straight ahead as he passed the long-empty bedrooms and study, forcing himself not to look at the picture of his mother on the end table in the living room. He spared only a glance downward when he slipped on his shoes at the door.
As each stride took him farther away from the home he was now abandoning, it became harder and harder not to look back. He wouldn't, though. He couldn't.
Finally he was through the gate of the Uchiha complex and breaking into a silent run. One stop on the way. Then he would leave this place, and the people in it, and the parts of himself that refused to let go, behind.
He doesn't exist, he reminded himself when doubt curdled in the pit of his stomach.
In good time, he reached his first destination. The woods were eerily silent; he had them to himself this time. His footsteps crunched loudly to his ears as he approached his point of departure.
He hadn't noticed before that the broken tree was damaged. Burnt. One of the three trunks had taken the brunt of whatever had done it, but the other two carried faint scorch-marks as well. It hadn't looked like that before. ("Each trunk takes its own path…")
Stiffening, Sasuke banished his brother's voice away. That wasn't why he was here.
Finally he knelt down and pulled out the half-rusted kunai, turning it over in his hands, taking in every inch for maybe the last time.
No. Not 'maybe.'
That thought came through firm and clear. Setting his jaw, Sasuke raised the kunai to eye-level, pointing it downward, then drove it into the ground. Just as he had found it.
He doesn't exist.
The last bond had been severed.
When Tenten got to the hospital the next morning, the news had already spread. A tearful Sakura was the last to see him, bathed in moonlight, packed and ready to disappear beyond the village gates.
By sunrise, he was gone.